One year after Sandy Hook, gun control advocates look toward next session

Attorney Mike Freeman
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, right, details a bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Latz during a gun control hearing at the state Capitol in February 2013. (Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News File)

The shootings of 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school a year ago Saturday led state legislatures across the country to pass new gun laws. Most states, however, responded by loosening their gun restrictions, according to a recent New York Times report.

In Minnesota, lawmakers failed to pass any new gun laws in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., killings. Gun control advocates say they will push again to expand background checks on gun purchases to include private sales. Currently in Minnesota, a person can buy a gun from a private seller without going through a background check, an exception known by some as the "gun show loophole."

Some gun rights advocates oppose requiring background checks for such transactions saying it only burdens law-abiding people.

While it may be difficult to get state lawmakers to take up new gun-specific laws during an election year, a proposed series of '"get tough" laws has the support of many Second Amendment advocates.

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The so-called "prosecutors package" of laws includes measures making it a felony to knowingly give a gun to a person prohibited from carrying a gun; it would prohibit felons from possession ammunition and include certain domestic violence offenses as "crimes of violence" -- that way a person convicted of one of these crimes would face tougher penalties for getting caught with a gun.

In a recent interview, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said he'll push for these laws next session. And he said tougher penalties are impacting the behavior of felons.

Felons are getting the message they'll go to prison for a long time if they get caught with a gun, though they're also finding more creative ways to avoid getting caught, Freeman said.

Minnesota legislators did pass some measures in response to the Newtown tragedy.

They approved funding for measures focused on mental health and preventing people who are mentally ill and dangerous from getting guns. They also approved $7 million for school-based mental health programs and another $1 million to shore up the background check system law enforcement officials use to screen who is and who isn't eligible to possess firearms.

State officials estimate around 67,000 records of records for people committed by the courts to receive mental health treatment are missing from the system.

Some mental health experts say this session was a productive one for mental health treatment.

"It was a landmark session for children's mental health,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Minnesota. "We had over 12 bills introduced to fix and improve the children's mental health system that contained about 29 different provisions and about 17 of them passed."

Abderholden and other mental health experts say even though some of the young men who committed the mass shootings at Sandy Hook, Accent Signage in Minneapolis and the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last year have been reported as having some kind of mental illness, most people with mental illness are not violent.

Waiting in line
Attendees of a gun control hearing wait with their tickets, which were required to enter because of the high public interest, at the state Capitol in February 2013. (Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News)